1 in 3 women suffer violence, but it’s everyone’s problem

Caroline Sweetman Gender, Gender & Development Journal


1 in 3 women are estimated to directly experience violence. In the Gender & Development’s latest journal, issues around violence against women and girls (VAWG) are explored as a central concern for development. Caroline Sweetman, Editor of Gender & Development, introduces the articles and their contributors. 

Counting Dead Women is a blog and social media campaign that lists the names and details of all the women in the UK who die at the hands of violent men. The activist responsible for Counting Dead Women, Karen Ingala Smith, aims to mark each and every death, and pass on her sense of outrage so enough of us care sufficiently to take action to end violence against women and girls (VAWG). Astonishingly, it is less than three decades since VAWG was recognised by the United Nations as a violation of human rights, at the Vienna Human Rights Conference in 1993.

This issue of Gender & Development focuses on VAWG as a central concern for development. VAWG is a many-headed hydra, far wider than domestic violence. It includes rape and sexual violence, so-called  ‘harmful traditional practices’ which are in fact human rights abuses, like forced and child marriage and ‘honour crimes’; and the ostensibly lesser forms like threats, bullying and anger.

The scale of VAWG is massive. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimated in 2013 that one in three women directly experience VAWG in the form of intimate partner violence, or sexual violence from a non-partner.  In many countries and regions of the world, prevalence rates are considerably higher, at nearly 50% in Africa, and over 60% in the West Pacific. VAWG is rooted in gender inequality: it’s the way men maintain power and control over

VAWG is rooted in gender inequality: it’s the way men maintain power and control over women. VAWG is also found in rich homes as well as poor. Women are abused behind the doors of mansions in New York’s Park Avenue, as well as the rapidly-growing slums of the developing world. Yet while wealth doesn’t protect you from VAWG, it may make it easier to avoid it or escape it. In her article in this issue, Souad Belhorma highlights the fact that early marriage of young women in Morocco has increased in recent years in communities which are placed under strain by economic and social change, despite legal reform to outlaw the practice.

Development and humanitarian organisations committed to gender equality are not only working to help end VAWG, they also recognising their role in potentially increasing VAWG in their programming, if they do not take steps to protect women and girls. In this issue, Kay Standing, Sara Parker and Sapana Bista discuss VAWG in the aftermath of the 2015 earthquakes in Nepal. Highlighting the risks of violence and trafficking faced by women and girls in emergencies, they assert that women’s leadership and grassroots organizations are crucial components of emergency response, including VAWG prevention and response. A key message from the women’s movements to international development is, ‘don’t reinvent the wheel on VAWG, learn from us, and work
in alliance with us on our priorities’.

Indeed, women’s movements have a track record in activism on VAWG which long predates the interest of international development in the issue. Paola Cagna and Nitya Rao explore how the women’s movements in China, India and Indonesia have mobilized for legal reform on VAWG, and placed it on state agendas.  Cathy Vaughan et al. document a participatory action research project aimed at understanding how
women with disabilities experience VAWG and the barriers that prevent them from getting support and protection.  Julia Zulver focuses on women’s mobilisation against feminicide – the targeted killing of women and lack of institutional response to this – in El Salvador.

The issue also has key insights for policymakers around changing priorities and funding patterns in anti-VAWG work. Currently, work on changing social norms is burgeoning in many international development organisations. It’s clearly a good thing, which done well and over time will deliver fundamental change. In their article, Laura Haylock, Rukia Cornelius, Anthony Malunga, and Kwezilomso Mbandazayo discuss insights from Oxfam-supported anti-VAWG programmes that challenge harmful social norms and individual attitudes.  In turn, Sarah de Roure and Chiara Capraro focus on the role of progressive faith institutions in Brazil in challenging conventional and oppressive social norms at community level, about women’s role in family and

A word of warning is sounded by Lisa Vetten, who calls for donors not to forget their duty to VAWG survivors. She suggests that in South Africa, feminist activists supporting survivors are struggling to find funding, as this most gruelling and continuous work is less attractive to some funders than the more visionary programmes focusing on prevention. Women’s organisations who provided support to
survivors know that both support and prevention are important, grounded in local realities.  In their article, Sophie Read-Hamilton and Mendy Marsh offer insights from the Communities Care programme, focusing on conflict-affected women and girls getting the crucial refuge, support and protection they need. Support and protection for survivors, and the prevention of future violence through transformational social change, are both

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Photo: A street rally to mark the launch of the We Can campaign to end violence against women, in Gaibandha, Bangladesh, in September 2004. Credit: Oxfam

Author: Caroline Sweetman
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.